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Elma school leaders say they’re building a culture of tolerance

Courtesy Elma Schools  EHS ASB President Mac Miller and leadership student Maci Shumate display the “Helping Hands” created by Elma students in an effort to promote the Day of Service for Martin Luther King Jr. Students created their own statement; “I will take a moment to…”
Courtesy Elma Schools EHS ASB President Mac Miller and leadership student Maci Shumate display the “Helping Hands” created by Elma students in an effort to promote the Day of Service for Martin Luther King Jr. Students created their own statement; “I will take a moment to…”

In the face of a former student’s lawsuit accusing the Elma School District of institutional racism, district and high school representatives said the school is not just sitting by and letting prejudice and bullying go unnoticed or unpunished.

While unable to directly comment on the lawsuit, which cites numerous racist incidents alleged by recent Elma High graduate Cassie Hall, both Superintendent Howard King and Elma High School Principal Kevin Acuff defended the school’s reputation. They say that a number of initiatives and programs have been implemented in recent years to tackle the issue of bullying and tolerance within the school district, including a diversity committee implemented by Acuff last year to give advice.

“I think there are some really good things going on here,” King said. “I can’t say we’re the best in the world, but I’m feeling very comfortable. … I’m really proud of what’s going on here. I really am.”

King, Acuff and student leadership teacher Christi Kershaw all said the school has taken major steps in recent years to create a tolerant atmosphere on campus and think the results have been quite positive.

“You provide a good environment for kids and, typically, they make good decisions. But sometimes they don’t,” King said.

“There’s no way that anybody can control all of the behaviors of all the people,” he added. “We can’t control all the behaviors of the kids. … But what you can do is create an environment where kids will get more and more used to making appropriate decisions, and that’s what we do here. When things do pop up; when there are misbehaviors or inappropriate things are happening, our responsibility is to deal with them in a timely fashion and deal with them appropriately, and I can say with confidence that is what goes on. If something comes to our attention, we deal with it. We deal with it appropriately and we deal with it quickly. If we don’t do that, then we’re not doing our jobs. In any environment there are going to be people who make mistakes or people who misbehave … and you’re in an environment where kids are growing up, and part of growing up is making mistakes, and then our job — as the adults — is to get them back on track. Sometimes you get them back on track by counseling or giving them examples of what to do better. Sometimes it’s issuing consequences.”

“I can’t control everyone who’s in this building,” said Acuff, who is the only individual named in the suit. “But when expectations aren’t met, we deal with it.”

The school officials also mentioned numerous avenues in which the school has worked to increase tolerance and decrease bullying at the school, citing assemblies, speakers and staff training and setting up an anonymous email tip line among their examples. The school has also instituted “Challenge Day,” which is a day to promote tolerance and empathy among staff and students and comes from a Concord, Calif.-based organization. The program came into place two years ago, although Kershaw said the idea had been batted around for at least six years.

More than 300 students, staff and community members participated in the program earlier this month, which challenged participants to “Be the Change” by first noticing, then choosing and finally acting on the need for positive change.

“Challenge Day opened everyone’s eyes on what people face day to day. I believe students will treat each other better and with kindness because they are more aware of life’s challenges,” Shelby Felder, EHS Eagle peer leader, said about the event.

Acuff said that Elma tried to get other districts in the area to participate in the event, but couldn’t get any takers.

Kershaw cited the focus of the school’s current leadership classes, who are taking it upon themselves to “make sure that all kids feel like they belong.”

“We try to create a culture and environment where all kids feel welcomed and are part of things,” Kershaw said of the student leadership.

“One of the things that we feel strongly about is that when we want to change the culture of our school … we look to our leadership students,” Acuff said.

“These changes don’t come overnight. You have to create an environment where people are receptive to change. It sounds simple, but it ain’t simple,” King added “It’s an ongoing thing. You can’t just say you’re going to do it, then it’s done.”

Among the allegations in the lawsuit are references to racist “hit list” graffiti that appeared in the school a few years back.

Acuff says he takes issues of prejudice very seriously. When racist “hit lists” appeared at the school a few years back, Acuff went on the school’s Eagle TV and condemned the attack. The incident was named in Hall’s lawsuit, which alleged the district didn’t do anything.

“The graffiti was a threat against some of our students,” Acuff said in a copy of the speech provided to The Vidette. “They were singled out by bigotry and ignorance. It was a cowardly action.

“I ask you to imagine what it would be like if you were the one singled out — if you were the person that was threatened. Imagine if it was your child, or your brother or sister. I am asking for help of the entire school to ferret out the person who wrote it so that they can be held accountable for their action.”

“We will not allow this prejudice to continue in our school,” he said at the time. “Please stand with me against this hate. We learn, we love and we grow together when we stand against injustice to our friends. … To those of you willing to stand in opposition to this crime against human dignity, I applaud you, I thank you and I stand with you. To those who would promote or encourage this hateful behavior, I will work to remove you from our community. Our community believes in equality, justice and the democratic ideals that founded our country.”

Acuff called on the help of the student body “to devise a plan to combat the ignorant, small-minded and criminal behavior.”

The student body has since taken Acuff’s call for leadership on their own.

Student body president and senior Mackenzie Miller said she’s seen substantial change in the environment on campus. Miller was part of a student-led effort to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. for a special assembly this month. Miller noted that students talked during the assembly about the challenges of overcoming prejudice and bullying.

“It’s changed a lot from my freshman year to my senior year and I’ve seen a lot. I’ve noticed a huge improvement,” Miller said. “It’s cool to see the improvement. I think it’s improved a lot, at least since I’ve been in high school. The atmosphere has just done a complete 180. I think it’s definitely come around.”

Miller acknowledge that it’s impossible to stop all bullying and intolerance, but she believes great strides have been made among the student body.

“Some people intend to bully people, because they are like that, and you’re never going to stop all of that.” she said. “And I think some people don’t understand that what they say hurts and what they do hurts.”

King said the district looks forward to defending the school district against the allegation and reiterated his faith in Elma High’s direction.

“I’ve been in education a long time. I’m very proud of the efforts going on in this school. I stand by them. I’m also very proud of the way our school deals with situations. … It’s a good place to be.”